Everything you need to know about fasting

TRENDS IN DIET they come and go. They always have. Ever since humans began studying and then manipulating our physiology, health and fitness trends have emerged that usually promise revolutionary benefits, only to fade into oblivion after facing the full force of scientific scrutiny. Few emerge from this process unscathed. However, sometimes some of these trends are legitimate.

Fasting is one such trend, but it is actually a natural way of life that has existed since the dawn of mankind, with a purpose that is integral to your body’s cycle and function, a fact that perhaps explains its effectiveness. You’ve probably heard word of mouth about the benefits of fasting from someone who has tried it, or from someone who knows someone who has – we know that’s not conclusive evidence. But take it from us, there can be real benefits to fasting that exist in the small space where scientific research and fitness guru reinterpretation meet.

If you’re considering trying fasting, it’s important to first have all the information you need to make the right decision. To help, here’s everything you need to know about fasting, from the benefits to the dangers.

What is fasting?

Technically, whether or not you’re considering fasting for its fitness benefits, you’re already fasting every day. Fasting refers to the period—usually at night—that separates your last meal of the day from your first meal of the next day. It is a key component of the body’s daily cycle and is a process that has evolved through normal human actions over thousands of years.

Believe it or not, this is an extremely natural routine. With the resolution of many of the material problems of the first world, including hunger and access to food, people have become accustomed to devouring three large meals a day and treating themselves to snacks throughout. Fasting takes us back to our roots when our ancestors were forced to fast due to the scarcity of food. During this time, our cells learned to function on an irregular caloric intake.

Intermittent fasting becomes a purposeful diet choice when you deliberately refrain from eating. This usually involves restricting caloric intake for an extended period of time to put the body into a fasting state. However, low-calorie liquids such as water are an exception to this rule, as they can still be consumed.

What is the difference between intermittent fasting and regular fasting?

As we discussed above, everyone fasts. Intermittent fasting can be distinguished from standard fasting in that it is intentional. Intermittent fasting involves withdrawing the fasting period by alternating periods of fasting and feeding. A typical intermittent fasting plan is to go without food for 16 hours and then indulge for eight.

What are the benefits of fasting?

Fasting plays an important role in the body’s metabolism and hormone regulation. During fasting, fatty acids are broken down and converted into energy. Debris can also be broken up and safely evacuated.

Most of these things naturally happen during overnight fasting, but intentional intermittent fasting has various other effects. One study found that intermittent fasting can lower insulin levels, and other studies show that the practice can improve cholesterol and glucose levels, lower blood pressure, and even improve longevity.

Of course, fasting is also a means of achieving weight loss. Although intermittent fasting does not specifically require lower caloric intake, shorter eating time frames generally result in fewer calories consumed and lower levels of hunger. In turn, the weight loss caused by intermittent fasting provides a number of additional benefits.

How does fasting affect fitness?

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Fasting can have a significant impact on fitness, and it’s important to weigh your results before starting a diet. Fasting is a means of achieving lasting weight loss, improving cardiovascular fitness and reducing body fat. However, this will also often result in a loss of muscle mass and composition. However, smaller muscles are often a necessary evil when it comes to weight loss, so if you’re prioritizing weight loss over muscle gain, this information shouldn’t deter you from fasting.

It is also important to manage the intensity of your workouts when you are fasting. You can still exercise while fasting, and exercising on an empty stomach will have its benefits, but your intensity will need to be adjusted as you simply cannot push as hard when your body has less available energy to burn. If you feel dizzy or light-headed while exercising on an empty stomach, you should stop immediately and eat and drink something.

How long should you fast?

There is very little consensus on this. Ultimately, the answer will depend on your unique physiological makeup, but there are several popular styles of fasting, all with different time frames. Which one you choose to adopt will depend on your lifestyle and goals.

Intermittent fasting

The most popular and achievable form of fasting, intermittent or time-limited fasting, places shorter restrictions on when you can and cannot eat. The most common structure is the 16:8 method. This involves fasting for 16 hours of the day and eating for eight. In this format, you can refrain from eating until 12:00 p.m., when you break your fast and begin a feeding period that lasts until the last meal at 8:00 p.m. This structure is the easiest to adopt, but don’t feel inhibited by arbitrary time constraints. The 16-hour period without food can start and end at any time of the day.

Alternate fasting day

As one of the more drastic forms of fasting, alternative fasting usually involves alternating between fasting days and holidays. No, fast days do not require you to eat no calories at all, just as few as possible. The next day, you will resume your normal eating activities, eating practically as much as you want.

It is much more difficult to get into alternate day fasting, it takes quite a commitment to maintain this diet for more than a few days.

All-day fasting

Like alternative fasting, intermittent fasting requires participants to consume as few calories as possible on certain days, often amounting to as little as 500 calories per day. The 5:2 schedule is common here, requiring five days of regular caloric intake separated by two days of minimal intake.

Are there any dangers to fasting?

As any Snickers commercial will tell you, you’re not you when you’re hungry. Irritability is one of the biggest negative side effects of fasting because the brain and body function differently on an empty stomach, often resulting in a less cheerful mood.

Psychologically, there are concerns that fasting may lead to the development of eating disorders, but this has not been clinically proven and most diets pose this risk. Fasting also cleared the charge of causing constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and chronic fatigue. However, fasting can lead to lower energy levels, so if you’re preparing for a big day at work or a particularly strenuous workout, we wouldn’t recommend a fasted session.

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